TORONTO — Catholic teaching on divorce and remarriage is “not open to change,” as it is faithful to Jesus’ instruction on the indissolubility of sacramental marriage, but the Church can do better in helping those suffering in this area, says Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto.
“Although it would not be right for them to receive the sacraments, we need to find better ways to reach out to people in this situation, to offer them loving assistance,” the cardinal said in an interview published on the Word on Fire blog June 25.
He said one form of help would be a wider realization that receiving Communion is not obligatory at Mass.
The cardinal said that if there were less pressure for everyone to receive Communion, “it would be some help to those who are not in a position to do so.”
Cardinal Collins’ comments come ahead of the Synod of Bishops’ extraordinary general assembly, to be held Oct. 5-19 to address pastoral challenges related to the family.
The synod has been the subject of significant media coverage and speculation, including highly publicized suggestions that the Church will change the Catholic practice that divorced Catholics who have remarried should not receive holy Communion if their first marriage was valid.
The cardinal rejected “unfounded speculation” about a change in Church teaching.
“Overriding the explicit teaching of Jesus on the unbreakable nature of marriage is not an option. Nobody has the authority to do that.”
He said that the teaching of Jesus Christ on the indissolubility of marriage is “not open to change,” but “there may be things that we can change to assist our brothers and sisters in Christ who are in this difficult and painful situation.”
Cardinal Collins said that the Catholic Church “teaches what Jesus teaches” in presenting marriage as “an unbreakable covenant” between a man and a woman that is “faithful in love and open to the gift of life.”
“Divorce and remarriage is not allowed when it is a matter of a valid, sacramental and consummated marriage,” he said.
The cardinal noted that many Catholics who are divorced and not free to marry nonetheless enter into a second marriage.
“There are various reasons that can lead to this, and their fellow parishioners should not occupy themselves speculating about them,” the cardinal said.
“Catholics in that tragic situation can be involved in many ways in the life of the community, but they may not receive the sacraments, such as holy Communion.”
The cardinal said that whatever their personal situation or the reasons for their situation, they are “continuing in a way of life which is objectively against the clear command of Jesus.”
The point is not that these people have “committed a sin,” since God gives his mercy “to all sinners.” Rather, they have made a “conscious decision … to persist in a continuing situation of disconnection from the command of Jesus.”
Outreach to Those Who Leave the Church
The cardinal noted the “great tragedy” that some Catholics leave the Church because they cannot receive Communion, noting that it is likely they and their children will “become disconnected from the source of life in Christ that is found in the Church.”
He urged outreach to divorced Catholics who leave the Church.
At the same time, he said that Catholics need to be “attentive to the command of Christ” and not undermine the “sanctity of marriage” at a time when marital stability is “already tragically compromised.”
“If we proclaim in actions, even though not in words, that the marriage covenant is not really what Jesus says it is, then that offers short-term comfort at the cost of long-term suffering. As the sanctity of the marriage covenant is progressively weakened, it will ultimately be the children who will suffer most,” he said.
The cardinal also praised divorced Christians who “live a life of exemplary holiness” and recognize the reality that they cannot marry again.
“They are an inspiration to us all,” he said. “I hope the synod offers encouragement to those who are divorced and faithfully living the Christian life.”
Cardinal Collins said the upcoming synod will deal with the “whole range of issues facing the family.” The issue of communion and the divorced and remarried is “one among many issues.” He noted that cohabitation without marriage is now “one of the key problems,” in society, as are social attitudes that do not value permanent commitments.
“Our Lord’s teaching on marriage, like his whole teaching on discipleship, can at times be very difficult, especially in the world in which we live; but really, in all periods of history, a certain heroism is required in the Christian life,” the cardinal told Word on Fire. “We are all called to holiness; that is not just the vocation of the few who are canonized, but of all of us.”